Apple, iPhone 14, direct to satellite, and the others

Who is targetting direct to satellite, why, and what are the technical considerations?

Over recent weeks there have been strong rumours that Apple was considering some sort of entry into mobile direct to satellite services, possibly in partnership with Globalstar. Today, as part of its annual reveal, the company duly announced exactly that. It said that, due to “customised components” and software integration, its iPhone 14 would be able to offer an emergency SOS service that uses satellite connectivity.

The service, limited at launch, will ask users a few short questions, and direct the user as to which direction to point their phone to get good connectivity. If their emergency service doesn’t suppor text alerts, then a service centre will take the message and phone through on behalf of the user. Apple is also able to use the service to let users share their location using FindMy, even where they are out of cellular data service range.

As noted by SatelliteToday. Globalstar confirmed in SEC filings that it will provide service, resrving 85% of its capacity for the service. And although Apple did not mention Globalstar by name in the keynote, it has listed support for Globalstar’s Band 53 spectrum band in its list of features. Globalstar’s filing said,” The Partnership Agreement materially enhances the device ecosystem for Band 53/n53. Globalstar expects that this will accelerate terrestrial deployments and monetisation of the band… Based on recent comparable transactions, the Company believes that its U.S. terrestrial spectrum is its single most valuable asset, and that, collectively, its international terrestrial spectrum may ultimately have a value substantially in excess of its U.S. terrestrial spectrum.”

The rumours coincided with a launch announcement from Elon Musk, in late August, that SpaceX would enable direct satellite to mobile phone connectivity from next year. In a joint announcement with T-Mobile, Musk said that his satellites would be equipped with antennas that would enable them to connect to mobile phones directly.

Huawei, now shut off from US OS, also announced that its latest devices would be able to support satellite services using a Chinese satellite provider.

SpaceX and Apple (and Huawei) are not alone in spying opportunity in direct to mobile satellite services. Others that are targeting the market include Omnispace, Lynk Global and AST.

The GSMA’s in-house analyst unit, GSMAi, said in a paper published in march 2022 that there is definitely a service opportunity there for somebody. Its modelling: “suggests a total incremental connectivity revenue opportunity for telecoms operators of over $30 billion by 2035, spread across consumer, B2B/IoT and government client segments. Wholesale partnerships between satellite operators and telecoms groups are the most likely revenue model. Commercial availability is likely to come online around 2025, with the intervening three-year window likely to see a round of partnerships to help bridge the mobile and digital divide.”

Northern Sky Research said in November 2021 that direct to mobile is the largest opportunity in space communications history.

The concept of direct to mobile satellite service is different in two ways from what we have come to think of as mobile satellite services.

First is that it provides a connection between a mobile phone and a satellite without requiring a special phone, or even modification to an existing phone. The idea is that, as long as a device supports the frequency that the satellite base station is operating on, then it can talk to the base station in the sky just as if that base station were on a tower or rooftop somewhere nearby. (As an example, T-Mobile and SpaceX said they would be using the 1.9GHz band that T-Mobile got when it acquired Sprint. SpaceX also has 2GHxz spectrum from Charlie Ergen’s Dish. Apple would use existing satellite spectrum from Globalstar.Lynk says it is going to use UHF spectrum.)

Here we can see a slight difference in Apple’s launch from the pure “any compatible mobile” play that others are claiming. Apple has designed in custom parts and software as a service wraparound to give its users the ability to connect to Globalstar satellites, plus a service experience. Others, as we will see, are more bullish in claiming that they won’t require any modifications to the device, as long as there is spectrum support.

Secondly, the clue is in the word direct. Some satellite services set up a connection to a ground station, and then mobile devices connect locally to the ground station. The other model is you need a special phone. But in this direct to mobile, satellites in low earth orbit, some 500km up in the sky, are able to provide connectivity to devices on the ground, without altering the phone, or going by an intermediary ground station.

The obvious questions are: how can a device connect to a base station that is in orbit, what do the in-orbit base stations look like, what sorts of services can be enabled, when might all this happen?

There are also some fairly obvious technical and market issues for direct to satellite mobile services. One, the base stations are very far away from the phone (500km). Second, the base stations are travelling very fast – say 25,000 kph. Third, your device might not always be able to “see” a satellite. Fourth, broadband data services over satellite are really hard – will messaging and IoT services be enough to sustain business models? Fifth, it is (or it has been) very expensive to build, launch and operate communications satellites – and there’s a whole series of Chapter 11 filings stretching back years to underline that point. Sixth, are regulators going to allow satellite services to operate in or close to terrestrial frequencies?

Lynk’s effect

Charles Miller is CEO of Lynk, one of the companies targeting this market. Miller says that his satellites can indeed provide connectivity to devices that are hundreds of km away, and have already proved it. Lynk has been filing a series of patents since it started working on its solution since 2016, firing satellites into orbit already, and carrying out successful tests of SMS delivery to a device on earth via its satellite base stations.

We are years ahead of everybody else

The company has had five test satellites in space, launching one every 6 months since 2019 – and it is just waiting for a commercial license to launch commercial services with a sixth, commercial, satellite that is already loaded. The company has another three satellites base stations ready to launch in December this year using, perhaps ironically, SpaceX as its launch company. In time, it envisions perhaps as many as a thousand satellite base stations providing a seamless service, although it doesn’t need anything like that number to begin services. In fact it only needs one to a small handful to start providing messaging services, cell broadcast and something Miller calls “LynkCast”, as well as IoT services, where devices may only require one live overpass per day.

“So we are years ahead of everybody else,” Miller says. “As you heard, Elon said that the first test that might happen is late 2023 – so commercial services are years after that. But we’re already there. We’re testing today in 10 different countries and we have 14 mobile network operators signed to commercial contracts, ready to start providing services as soon as we’re allowed to do so.”

“Our plan is to ramp up launch to 50 satellites next year and by the end of 2023 provide what we call global seamless messaging.” That service would store a message in a user’s outbox, and then send it when the user next comes under satellite coverage.

Solving the technical issues

Miller says that Lynk’s advantage comes as it has figured out several key technical issues, via its patented solutions, that can be “backwards compatible with every phone on the planet”. According to Miller, figured out how to solve the link and latency budget between an unmodified phone using any 3GPP protocols, and a satellite in LEO. It had to solve the severe Doppler effect that is created when a moving base station passes by a stationary phone at 25,000 kph (if you want to understand the Doppler effect the usual explanation is to think of how a police car siren sounds – how your ear receives the frequency – as the car speeds towards and then past you.) Lynq’s solution is to carry out Doppler compensation, whereby the base station offsets the nature of the signal, so that the phone device does not observe such a severe Doppler effect.

Miller said that by playing around with the timeslot data frames of the mobile signal, it “tricks” a mobile phone into thinking that a satellite that is 500km away is in fact a normal base station that is only a few km away.

A patent description from Lynk says:

The multiple-access base station comprises a data parser that parses data received by the multiple-access base station according to a frame structure, wherein the frame structure defines which timeslots are allocated to which of the plurality of terrestrial mobile stations, wherein the frame structure comprises a plurality of slots each having a zero or nonzero timeslot synchronization offset that provides for variable transmission delays that are due to a distance from the multiple-access base station to the plurality of terrestrial mobile stations; a signal timing module that determines a signal timing adjustment relative to the frame structure for a transmitted signal to the terrestrial mobile station based on a base-to-mobile distance between the multiple-access base station and the terrestrial mobile station where the base-to-mobile distance exceeds the limited distance; and a programmable radio capable of communicating a communication from the multiple-access base station to the terrestrial mobile station using a multiple-access protocol and taking into account the signal timing adjustment, such that the communication is compatible with, or appears to the terrestrial mobile station to be, communication between a terrestrial cellular base station and the terrestrial mobile station, notwithstanding that the base-to-mobile distance exceeds the limited distance.

Patents aside, one notable aspect of the direct to satellite rush is that there is a range of technical approaches. One company, AST has a very large antenna array, 693 square feet, whereas Lynk says that its bigger satellites are a metre and a half wide and weigh 85kg. Omnispace, which is targeting 5G and broadband services from space, has two satellites in orbit, and they operate in S-Band spectrum. Space-X’s Musk said its antennas will need to be on its Version 2 craft, which will be 7 metres long and weigh 1,130 kilograms, double current Starlink satellites, with a 16 foot antenna on the satellite.

“They’re the most advanced phased-array antennas in the world, we think,” Musk said. “The antennas have to be extremely advanced, because they’ve got to pick up a very quiet signal from your cellphone… And you can imagine, that signal’s got ta travel 500 miles and then be caught by a satellite that’s traveling 17,000 miles an hour. And the satellite’s got to compensate for the Doppler effect of moving so fast. So this is really quite a difficult technical challenge. But we have it working in the lab, and we’re confident this will work in the field.”

If this sounds similar to the issues that Lynk says it has already solved, then that’s because it is. “I don’t know what they’re planning on doing,” Miller says of Space X. “It sounds like they’re copying our playbook. So, so I don’t know, nobody knows how to get around our patents. I don’t know if anyone knows we have the patents. I’m not making an offer, if that’s what you’re trying to pull out on me.

“We have we have a multi-year lead, and we have the patents and we think that puts us in a great position. Elon has been the leader in some areas. In this case, he’s not the leader, right? He wants to be, but he’s years behind this.”

The business opportunity

Dealing with technical issues is just part of the scepticism that Miller says he has had to overcome. “The last three years we’ve been talking about it, the primary questions have been, ‘Can you really do this? This doesn’t sound easy.’ And it is hard, but the physics doesn’t lie, and we’ve now proven it. But then other people say, ‘Well, okay, you can do it, but is it a really big business?

“And it turns out, it’s a huge business. It’s going to grow into the biggest category of space services in the world. And that’s why Elon had to jump in.That’s what he figured out. Finally, he had to jump in. And I knew this was gonna happen, it was clear to me in 2017 that Elon wouldn’t be able to resist, he would have to jump in. He needs to be in the big space businesses. I just couldn’t predict when or how.”

One thing Miller does need, however, is more financing. He says, “I’m still talking to investors about funding all those launches I talked about. So right now, you don’t want to miss out on this market. This is the time to get in.”

If Miller is seeking financing, he is bullish about the opportunity that he offers investors. He says MNOs are excited about the whole piece.

“Some of them care about different parts more than others, depending on the local geographic needs of their subscribers. So if they’ve got a lot of maritime, they are really into that; if they’ve got a big landmass they’re they’re into thta, shutting down cell towers where they are losing money on operations and maintenance. Some of them want IoT, and everybody looks forward to the day when we can do all the services, which is voice and broadband data, which we’re not going to start with, even though technically the satellites can do that.”

Where Miller sees voice, messaging and low data rate services as the oportunity, and Omnispace sees broadband, others are optimising only for IoT.

Dedicated to IoT

One of those is Astrocast, whose CEO is Fabien Jordan. Jordan says Astrocast is different from the other companies named on this page because it is not basing its service on a tweaked version of 3GPP standards. In fact it makes a virtue of not doing so, claiming that it can provide more cost effective service by optimising data protocols for long battery life and very low power operations.

The company instead uses a proprietary protocol to connect its satellites to IoT devices that are equipped with its own modules, and connected via its own database.

As it sounds, Astrocast is vertically integrated. It manufactures its satellites in house, makes the modules that System Integrators can then build into devices, and operates the service. Jordan says that its products and service are therefore, “Highly optimised and that is why we have been successful – everything from the protocol to the satellite level is designed to serve direct to satellite IoT.” Astrocast also operates in L-Band spectrum, which Jordan says enables it to use the same channel and spectrum everywhere on the planet, rather than relying on supporting spectrum that has been licensed for use by mobile network operators.

“In Europe operators are in all sorts of different spectrum bands, so you require a huge beam to manage the different frequencies that a device will use.”

For Jordan, Astrocast’s “showstopper” is that for now it is the only available solution that works super-well at a very low power consumption.

“Cellular technology is not guaranteed to meet our low power consumption. That is key for System Integrators because that translates into the size and lifetime cost of a device.”

The company currently has 12 satellites in orbit – two as demonstrators – with its ten active base stations orbiting at 550km, orbiting every 90 minutes. Its satellites weigh less than 5kg, meaning that the capex requirement for his business is very different to the big name global services that kept Delawares courts busy in the 90s and 200s.

“With 50 million dollars we can put 100 satellites into orbit, which is about the cost of one Irridium satellite,” Jordan says.

The service is operating in 72 countries where devices are deployed, with a footprint covering Europe, Africa, the Middle Easy and some parts of South East Asia. South America is next on the schedule.

That provides a service latency of 2-5 hours, which is enough for devices that send very few messages. A full constellation working in eight orbital planes by the end of 2023 will reduce that, and Jordan says there are “plenty of opportunities” in the one to one to five hour range.

Although the service is not based on cellular technology, Jordan says he has seen strong interest in Astrocast from MVNOs and telcos. “I have been surprised how they have reached out. They know their limitations and white zones, and they see that for large global vertical industries, this is the best way to address those. Telefonica picked us to work on connecting shipping containers and we are working on other verticals.”

In fact shipping has been a big segment, along with animal tracking, where five companies are currently building animal tracking devices based on Astrocast’s devices.

“We are building a nice ecosystem of OEMs and solution providers,” Jordan says, but device sales are actually a low margin enabler for the real money, which will come when the company is generating recurring revenue from data plans.

“We’ve heard a lot of noise, especially in the past five years. For us it is important to bring clarity and remind people that while there are plenty of good ideas, people testing stuff, there are not many sustainable and reliable technologies that are commercially available.

“We believe we are only operator with direct to satellite, low power, two way comms at a low cost – single digit dollar per month data plans – and devices that cost much less than 50 bucks a piece. This is new and disruptive and, based on L Band, offers a power consumption comparable to LoRa. That is quite unique and we have not seen anybody commercialise that. This why we are successful in our fundraising. It is also key to the System Integrators, they are the ones building the service and who will define who will be leaders – and we certainly hope to ride on their shoulders.”